Preserve the faith. Perhaps it’s far too late, a cry in the classic wilderness, a mission impossible. At a modest estimate at least 9,000 Hindi language films — this is news as well as a comment — have just skedaddled with the wind. Which is to say, because of a combination of avoidable factors, a chunk of Indian cinema heritage has been lost forever. And more film prints are perishing even as these words are being written.
A majority of films which have vanished without a trace date back to the 1930s and 40s, the early years of the talkies. Of the silent era, only fragments of about 24 titles have survived. The British Film Institute, which fortuitously possessed reels of three Himansu Rai-Franz Osten silent films — Light of Asia (1925), Shiraz (1928) and Throw of Dice (1929) — gifted their prints to the National Film Archive of India, Pune. Woefully, though, not a single frame survives of Alam Ara (1931), India’s first sound film. Only 20 film production stills are repeatedly reprinted.
There is no trace of Paul Zils’ classic Zalzala (1952), which was spoken of with tremendous nostalgia by the pre-Independence generation. Its socialistic concerns and a screenplay adapted from Rabindra-nath Tagore’s Char Adhyay had wowed the audience in the throes of nationalistic fervour. <b1>
Kidar Sharma’s Chitralekha (1941) — featuring Mehtab in the title role — which was later remade, and is considered a groundbreaking ‘feminist’ work, has been lost to time, neglect and apathy. Jwar Bhata (1944), which introduced Dilip Kumar to cinema, is missing. As for the medium and small-budget films from the black-and-white golden era of Bombay cinema, they have been decimated. Ask around for Black Cat (1959) — a film noir with Balraj Sahni as a Bogart-style, cigarette-puffing detective — and you’re laughed at for being hallucinatory.
No status reports can be obtained about a range of delightful 1950s movies like Johnny Walker as a ‘post-graduate hero’ in Mr Qartoon MA (1958). Whatever happened to the Chandulal Shah-produced kiddie delight Zameen ke Taare (1960)? The swashbuckling adventures by Kamran, actor-producer-director of action movies during the 1950s-60s, appear to have been cremated. His daughter — director-choreographer Farah Khan — states that constant efforts to track down the prints of some of Kamran’s most commercially successful movies have been futile. The untraceable works include Aandhi aur Toofan, Do Matwale, Khoon ka Khoon and Robin Hood.
Bharati Jaffrey, daughter of Ashok Kumar, has complained that the prints of some of the films that her father produced — like Kalpana (1960) — cannot be found for love or money.
The life span of a film in its pristine form is not more than a decade, unless it is carefully stored in ideal climactic conditions, periodically restored and ‘treasured’ as it were. Many film processing laboratories in Mumbai, which stored hundreds of prints, would issue advertisements till three years ago. The ads would state that if the films were not picked up by their copyright holders within a stipulated date, the reels kept in tin cans would be destroyed. Storage costs have spiralled. Moreover many film producers and studios have just not claimed their property.
One such laboratory, which had issued the ‘destruction’ notice, was in a shambles. Those in charge said that most of the film cans had rusted and the celluloid reels were ongoing fire hazards. There were at least a hundred films lying in various stages of degeneration in a room without any lights or air. Eventually, the laboratory closed down. No prizes for guessing the fate of those orphaned film cans. Similarly, scores of godowns in Mumbai and in the old-worldy studios have had to just ‘kill’ the original but ageing film prints. In several cases, no one can even identify their titles. The disowned movies are likely to be deleted and dumped in the trashcan.
P.K. Nair, a crusading film lover who once headed the National Film Archive, has reiterated that countless films have been sold and continue to be sold to raddiwallahs for a pittance; celluloid strips have been converted into decorative armlets and bangles. In fact, Suresh Chabria, film scholar and former chief of the archive, retrieved and restored fragments
of Baburao Painter’s Murliwalla (1927) from a Kolhapur utensils dealer who had picked up the reels for their ‘junk’ value.
The Pune archive has collected about 1,500 Hindi film prints made over six decades. The original prints of films by eminent filmmakers Mrinal Sen, Mani Kaul and Kumar Shahani are believed to be in a ‘threatened condition’. Recently, Ketan Mehta was shocked to learn that only a 16 mm print survives at the archive of his seminal film Bhavni Bhavai (1980).
Needless to emphasise, there are many more films — good, bad and the significant — that have just evaporated because no one cares. Also the situation is as, if not more, lamentable as it is in other parts of the nation’s film-producing centres. Individual film lovers can only touch the tip of the proverbial tip of the iceberg. Organised authorities must deal with it as a primary concern — be it the central or state government’s film-related bodies, the new corporate studio bosses or film industry associations. Otherwise more hidden masterpieces of our movie culture will go down like the Titanic.